If you are hankering for a European tourist destination, why not consider the Isle of Capri in the Bay of Naples? This lovely island popular with jet setters and many others lies in the Campania region of southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Capri is by no means undiscovered; it ranks with Rome, Florence, and Venice at the top of Italian tourist destinations. It is probably one of the most visited little islands in the world. Make sure to see our other articles on Campania destinations in this series; they cover Campania’s capital city Naples, the historic ruins east of Naples, the area west of Naples, and finally Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.
The British singer and vaudevillian Gracie Fields was the first (1934) to popularize the song The Isle of Capri whose initial stanza we quote: “‘Twas on the Isle of Capri that he found her; Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree; Oh, I can still see the flowers blooming ’round her; Where they met on the Isle of Capri.” Many others recorded this song including Frank Sinatra in 1957.
The island is quite small, only 4.2 miles (about 2.6 kilometers) long and 1.7 miles (1.1 kilometers) wide at its widest point. In general tourist cars are not permitted. If you are not in the mood for walking in this hilly terrain, there are usually plenty of taxicabs and buses. We’ll start our tour at Marina Grande on the north shore of the island, about one third of the way in from its easternmost point. We’ll head westward not far from the northern coast. Then we go south and back east until we get to the coast and head mostly north. Our final destination is Villa Jovis in Capri’s northeast corner. There are too many destinations to list. Depending on your time and your interests, and on your pocketbook as well, you may not visit them all. Once you know what you want to see, get a good map and plan out your specific itinerary.
Take the Scala Fenicia (Phoenician Stairway), steps cut out of rock, from Marina Grande to the Rock of Capodimonte at the city gate of the medieval city of Anacapri described below. The view is really great, but you will have quite a climb. On the way you will pass the Byzantine Castello Barbarossa (Barbarossa Castle) named for the Saracen pirate who devastated the island. The Villa San Michele and its spectacular grounds mark Anacapri’s ancient entrance. During the summer Friday night is evening concert night. Swedish citizens engaged in cultural work or research are really in luck, they can stay at the guesthouse.
Do you want to remain in Capri forever? Walk to the nearby Sphinx Parapet overlooking the Bay of Naples. According to a local legend, if you touch the sphinx’s hindquarters with your left hand while making a wish it will be granted.
Anacapri, population about six thousand, is the second largest town on the island. This town is definitely less expensive than Capri Town, to be described later. From the main square, Piazza Vittoria, take a chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro, the island’s highest point at slightly less than 2,000 feet (650 meters). This mountainette is living proof that you need not ascend very high in the air to obtain absolutely spectacular views. By the way, Monte Solara features over 850 species of plants. Casa Rossa is an unusual looking old red mansion that houses a permanent art exhibition called “The painted island,” illustrating daily Capri life in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Anacapri boasts historic churches including the Thirteenth Century Church of St Maria of Constantinople, the Fifteenth Century Church of Santa Maria a Cetrella, the Sixteenth Century Church of Sant’Antonio (known as the sailor’s church), the Sixteenth Century Church of Santa Sofia, and the Church of St Michele Arcangelo, built in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
The Villa di Damecuta is one of the three standing villas built by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. It’s only a short ride from Anacapri. If the weather’s good and you’re feeling a bit ambitious you can walk it in about 30-40 minutes. Be sure to visit the tower and the two rooms that reputedly were Tiberius’s summer hideaway. This villa may have been hit by cinders when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. destroying the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Villa di Damecuta actually served as a fort when the English and French were fighting for ownership of Capri.
The world famous Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto) on the northern coast of Capri lies a mere two miles (three kilometers) from Anacapri. Some feel that this tourist attraction put Capri on the map, so to speak. To get inside the Grotto you have to lie down inside a tiny boat that navigates its narrow passageway. On windy days the Grotto is closed to traffic because of the waves. The lovely blue color of the water inside the grotto must be seen to be believed. As an added bonus objects in the water take on a silver color. On the downside you may have to wait a long time outside the grotto before spending your allotted few minutes inside. The best view is between 11 AM and 1 PM.
With a population exceeding seven thousand Capri Town is the island’s largest municipality. You can get there by rail, bus, or taxi from the port. If you are ambitious you can climb your way up. The town center is officially called Piazza Umberto I, but most people say the Piazzetta home to the Museo Caprense Ignazio Cerio (Ignazio Cerio Centre of Capri) named for a doctor, archeologist, and naturalist. Its two thousand exhibits include specimens from Capri and all over the globe.
Our next stop is the beautiful Giardini di Ausgusto (Augustus’s Gardens) that didn’t belong to the Roman Emperor Augustus but to Friedrich Alfred Krupp, son of the founder of a German industrial empire. Krupp resided in Capri towards the end of the Nineteenth Century and built a villa upon Roman ruins. Later he donated the gardens to the Town of Capri. A nearby road, Via Krupp, is a rock-hewn staircase. Unfortunately it is closed to the public.
Our final stopping place is Villa Jovis, the largest of the twelve villas built by Emperor Tiberius to honor twelve Roman gods. The view is what one might expect from a built-for-the-ruler-of-the-world kind of villa. There’s a cliff and you might guess its use given that there were no checks and balances in those days.
What about food? One can imagine that precious little food is now raised on this upscale island. At the same time fancy restaurants abound. You can probably get just about anything you want cooked to order. And much of the food is produced close by.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Insalata Caprese (Mozzarella, Tomato, Basil, and Olive Oil). Then try Ravioli alla Caprese (Parmesan and Ricotta Egg Ravioli). For dessert indulge yourself with Torta Caprese (Chocolate and Almond Cake). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Campania wine. Campania ranks number 9 among the 20 Italian regions when it comes to acreage devoted to wine grapes and to the total annual wine production. The region produces about 64% red and and close to 36% white wine, as there is little rose. Campania produces 17 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Only 2.8% of Campania wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the red Taurasi, the white Greco di Tufo, and the white Fiano di Avellino. I have tasted the Fiano and found it to be top of the line.
Capri was well known for its wines even before becoming the headquarters of the Roman Empire. As an expression of continuity some Capri’s vineyards are situated among the ruins of Tiberius’s villas. Capri actually produces its own wine, imaginatively named Capri DOC. Capri DOC wine is mostly white but may be red. Both wines are made from specified Italian grape varieties with a certain percentage of local grapes. Because the local real estate is quite pricey, growers may try to overload the vineyards effectively diluting the wine. Be careful that when you pay for Capri wine you aren’t buying wine from the neighboring island of Ischia.